Review: ‘Hexagon 2019: Romp in the Swamp’

The writing is biting, the tunes are inviting, and there's more than enough fun here to make for an enjoyable evening of making fun.

Hexagon has been around for 64 years and never seems to age. Since 1956 the musical comedy theater group has been turning out original political satire that’s as of-the-moment as the news. Its latest is Romp in the Swamp, a two-act music-and-sketch review that skewers morsels of modern mores like a red-hot kabob stick: politics in the time of Trump, of course, but peculiarities of pop culture too.

The ‘Hexagon 2019: Romp in the Swamp’ opening number. Photo by Paul Cestone.

A cartoonscape of the Capitol submerged in slime spreads across the stage, because the futurist joke threading through the show is that the swamp that is DC never drained; it got swampier. Climate change has kicked in (“The President has declared air conditioning a hoax”), so “from sea to shining sea there’s nothing in between.”

A team of intrepid archeologists arrives to dredge up what life was like in 2019. In the opening number (“Romp in the Swamp”), the stage fills with singing and dancing archeologists and swamp creatures:

No one can explain it,
People came to drain it
And clean out all the muck here,
Somehow they all got stuck here.

There’s a winsome let’s-put-on-a-show vibe, and the performers and creative team are all big-hearted volunteers—Hexagon’s box office always benefits a charity—but the writing is biting, the tunes are inviting, and there’s more than enough fun here to make for an enjoyable evening of making fun.

For instance, there’s a scene in which the archeologists discover a strange bushel-basket-size mound of yellow fiber worn as a headdress by Susan Dye—in whose operatic soprano voice we hear an ode to Trump’s “Hair.”

Trump himself appears in an amusing impersonation by Matthew Ratz in several scenes. There’s a production number complete with backup singers and dancers in which he fondles and extols a model of the new Air Force One, which has been repainted to say “United States of TRUMP.”

There’s a sketch in which Trump complains to Sarah Huckabee Sanders (Cristen Stefansky) that he doesn’t have his own signature song. He runs through a list of song titles he’d like, but all they’re off limits, she tells him, because “Cease and desist.” Finally, she offers one he can have: “You’re So Vain.”

Matthew Ratz as Trump in “Rocket Man.” Photo by Paul Cestone.

A highlight of the evening is a musical number called “Rocket Man,” with gold-jacketed backup singers and Elvis-ish garb for Trump, in which his infatuation with foreign dictators gets a hilariously bromantic spin (“Feel the love…!”).

The three Supremes and Kavanaugh in “Justice.” Photo by Paul Cestone.

A host of prominent figures in the news make appearances, such as Mitch McConnell (Curt von Kann) wearing a tortoise shell in a sketch called “Mock Turtle.” There’s satisfying satire in a sketch called “Justice” in which the three female Supremes—Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Ellen Kaplan), Elena Kagan (Karen Pedone), and Sonia Sotomayor (Deidre Gyr Turshen)—haze newbie Brett Kavanaugh (Chris Gray).

The “Congressional Spice Girls.” Photo by Paul Cestone.

In another witty number, five Democratic congresswomen all dressed in white—Kyrsten Sinema (Jen Ayer Drake),  Nancy Pelosi (Karen Pedone ), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Caitlin Michelle Remmel),  Abigail Spanberger (Kathy Suydam), and Rashida Tlaib (Jackie Williams)—sing and dance as the “Congressional Spice Girls,” joined on the coda by Martha McSally (Rachel Waldstein).

Jackie Williams (center) in “Stormy.” Photo by Paul Cestone.

Jackie Williams has two show-stopping solo turns: as Stormy Daniels in a number called “Stormy” and as Michelle Obama in “Becoming/Kick.”

And the #MeToo movement gets a wicked Golden Girls twist in a sketch and number called “Bolden Girls”/”Keep It in Your Pants” with Rose (Susan Dye) Sophia (Ellen Kaplan), Dorothy (Kathleen Reilly), and Blanche (Karen Pedone). Turns out Blanche’s hookup with the Pizza Delivery Boy (Alex Diaz-Ferguson) has precipitated a visit from the Process Server (Joe Kaplan) charging her with sexual harassment. She thought the hashtag #MeToo meant “pound me too.”

“The Bolden Girls.” Photo by Paul Cestone.

The target range for the show’s political spoofing is a broad one. Staff turnover in the White House comes under ridicule (“Revolving Door”). Trump’s border wall emergency gets flipped—here it’s Mexico building a wall and policing its country against American tourists (“The Mexican Border Song”). Political correctness gets a sendup when a popular new liberal-progressive candidate (Susan Dye), who is perfect on all the issues, suddenly incurs the wrath of her followers because she is spotted using a plastic straw (“The Last Straw”). There’s lots more—some with sharper focus than others but with plenty whose aim is right on.

With equal cheek, Act Two takes on a wide assortment of cultural topics including online dating and dirty-pic sexting (Jennifer Strand as a single senior in the classic “Mr. Whiskers,” which I saw last summer when I reviewed Hexagon’s Fringe show) and the Sisyphean Metro system (“Back2Good, the best they can do”).

At four intervals during the show, two legit-seeming TV news anchors sit at a desk stage right, as if on camera, for a howlingly funny joke-set called “Newsbreak.” Their edgy material and their dry delivery was on a par with SNL‘s “Weekend Update.”*

Given that the show played on a high school auditorium stage, the dramatic lighting effects from song to song were noteworthy. Mostly the wireless mics worked, and the small orchestra off left served the singing well. Most remarkable was the invention in the array of costumes. In scene after scene, whole chorus lines would come on in flashy new looks, and the nonhuman characters (birds and other creatures) were accordingly decked out cleverly.

For the finale, the full company—women in sparkling silver tops and black skirts, the men in white tie and black tux—sang a movingly patriotic chorale called “This Is Us” (“We can be a better nation if we remember who we are”).

This entire intrepid troupe has gone to the swamp and seen what’s there and cracked us up. So when at last they stand stirringly on America’s higher ground, it is an upbeat ending well earned and much needed.

*Hexagon’s Newsbreaks go back decades, predating Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update,” I learned after I posted this review. Unannounced local DC radio and news anchors and other local personalities come to deliver the “news” during these segments. The night I saw Romp in the Swamp, the Newsbreak guest hosts were Jim Bohannon (National Radio Hall of Fame inductee) and Jackie Nedell (former TV anchor for NBC TV). Other guests during the run include Heather Curtis (WMAL radio), Mike Murillo (WTOP), Jim Lokay (Fox 5 TV), Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, Lauryn Ricketts (NBC & WTOP Broadcast Meteorologist), Christine Brennan (USA Today and ABC News and Sports), Lisa Berigan (Big 100.3FM), Loo Katz (97.1 FM and Hound Radio), and Bruce Alan (WTOP).

Running Time: About two hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.

Hexagon: Romp in the Swamp plays through April 6, 2019,  at Woodrow Wilson High School, 3950 Chesapeake St NW, Washington, DC, in the Tenleytown neighborhood. Tickets are available online or by calling 202-333-7469.

Proceeds from ticket sales go toward helping Hope Connections for Cancer Support.

Hexagon 2019: Romp in the Swamp

ACT I

Romp in the Swamp – Lyrics by Tim Johnston, Music by Nicholas Bashour and Jon Nowick, Arranged by Brock Holmes and Porter Lyon, dance break choreographed by Abigail Kruger
Shining City in a Swill – Sketch by Kenneth McLeod
Hair – Lyrics by Kathy Meyer Jeffers, Music by Lynn Kaplan, Instrumental Arrangement by Brock Holmes
Mind Your C’s and D’s – Sketch by Cathy Carpousis
United States of Trump (Air Force One) – Lyrics and Music by Geoffrey Baskir, choreographed by Claudia Halasz
Trump or Treat – Sketch by Beccah Lewis, Eileen Joyner, and Terry Lewis
Stormy – Lyrics and Music by Douglas Maurer
Rocket Man – Lyrics by Tim Johnston, Mark Raffman & Joe Kaplan, Music by Jon Nowick, Arranged by Joe Sipzner, choreographed by Claudia Halasz
Budget Meeting – Sketch by Lilian Leifert
Temper Tantrum – Lyrics by Douglas Maurer and Nancy Pelosi, Music by Douglas Maurer
Revolving Door – Lyrics by Kathy Meyer Jeffers, Music by Jon Nowick, Arranged by Porter Lyon
NEWSBREAK
At the Border – Sketch by Joe Kaplan
The Mexican Border Song – Lyrics and Music by Douglas Maurer
Chariots of the Bog – Sketch by Kenneth McLeod
Frankenfish – Lyrics and Music by J. Adrian Verkouteren, tap dance choreographed by Claudia Halasz
Bolden Girls  –  Sketch by Cathy Carpousis
Keep It in Your Pants – Lyrics by Rick Horowitz, Music by Walter Gilbert
Loaded – Lyrics by Richard Castle, Music by Matthew Levine, Arranged by Porter Lyon, dance choreographed by Claudia Halasz
NEWSBREAK
Becoming/Kick – Lyrics and Music by Douglas Maurer, men’s kick choreographed by Nicholas Bashour, women’s kick choreographed by Lisa Irvine

ACT II

Hippo Chrissy – Lyrics by Nicholas Bashour, Music by Sam Steere, Arranged by Joe Sipzner, tap dance choreographed by Claudia Halasz
Mock Turtle – Sketch by Kenneth McLeod
Congressional Spice Girls – Lyrics and Music by Geoffrey Baskir, choreographed by Claudia Halasz
All’s Will That Ends Will – Sketch by Beccah Lewis, Eileen Joyner, Terry Lewis, and William Shakespeare
It’s Mueller Time – Lyrics by Rick Horowitz, Music by Walter Gilbert
Mr. Whiskers – Lyrics by Richard Castle, Music by Matthew Levine
NEWSBREAK
Justice – Sketch by Cathy Carpousis
Just Us – Lyrics by Joe Kaplan, Music by Geoffrey Baskir
Filter Me Out – Lyrics by Michael Weems, Music by Sam Steere, choreographed by Claudia Halasz
Athleisure – Lyrics by Kathy Meyer Jeffers, Music by Walter Gilbert
Gluten Free – Lyrics and Music by Brandon Walker, Arranged by Porter Lyon
National Landing – Lyrics by Mark Raffman, Music by Mark Raffman and Brock Holmes, Arranged by Brock Holmes
Back2Good – Lyrics by Rick Horowitz, Music by Walter Gilbert
The Last Straw – Lyrics by Kathy Meyer Jeffers, Music by Kathy Meyer Jeffers and J. Adrian Verkouteren
Bipartisan Duet – Lyrics by Mark Raffman, Music Jon Nowick, Arranged by Sue Mason McElroy
This Is Us – Lyrics by Joe Kaplan, Music by Douglas Maurer
NEWSBREAK
Romp in the Swamp (Reprise) – Lyrics and Music by Nicholas Bashour, Arranged by Brock Holmes and Porter Lyon
G’Bye G’Bye – Lyrics by Cynthia Haney and Douglas Maurer, Music by Douglas Maurer

Cast: Geoffrey Baskir, David Boies, Cathy Carpousis, Sharon Clark-Napolitano, Neil Conway, Shannon Cowett, Libby Dasbach, Steve Dasbach, Alex Diaz-Ferguson, Jen Ayer Drake, Sharon Dye, Julia Frank, Chris Gray, Ellen Kaplan, Joe Kaplan, Abigail Kruger, Kaiya Lyons,  Justin Marcellus, Karen Pedone, Matthew Ratz, Kathleen Reilly, Caitlin Michelle Remmel, John Sadowski, Gary Schneider, Cristen Stefansky, Jennifer Strand, Kathy Suydam, Deirdre Gyr Turshen, Curt von Kann, Rachel Waldstein, Jackie Williams, George Willis

Principal Writers: Nicholas Bashour, Geoffrey Baskir, Cathy Carpousis, Richard Castle, Cynthia Haney, Rick Horowitz, Kathy Meyer Jeffers, Tim Johnston, Eileen Joyner, Joe Kaplan, Lilian Leifert, Beccah Lewis, Terry Lewis, Douglas Maurer, Kenneth McLeod, Mark Raffman, J. Adrian Verkouteren, Brandon Walker, Michael Weems

Contributing Writers: Phil Alperson, Bernie Cohen, Darrell Capwell, Malcolm Edwards, Eric A. Eisen, John Finch, Lars Issa, Judy Klass, Lillian Leifert, John V. “Skip” Maraney, Neil McElroy, Mike Desser, Sally Rogers, Alan Saltman, Doug Samuelson, Gary Schneider, Chuck Smith, Jef Smith, Laurie Smilan, Nicholas Zill

Musical Arrangers: Geoffrey Baskir, Walt Gilbert, Brock Holmes, Lynn Kaplan, Porter Lyon, Douglas Maurer, Sue Mason McElroy, Joe Sipzner, J. Adrian Verkouteren

Composers: Nicholas Bashour, Geoffrey Baskir, Walt Gilbert, Brock Holmes, Kathy Meyer Jeffers, Lynn Kaplan, Matthew Levine, Douglas Maurer, Jon Nowick, Mark Raffman, Sam Steere, J. Adrian Verkouteren, Brandon Walker

Musicians: Conductor – Joe Sipzner, Piano – Sue Mason-McElroy, Keyboard – Lynn Kaplan, Electric Bass – David Smith, Lead Guitar – Hugh LeMunyon, Rhythm Guitar, Percussion – Ethan Kabati, Drums – Nell McElroy

Production Team:
Producer: Steve Dasbach
Assistant Producer: Jackie Williams
Artistic Director: Nicholas Bashour
Assistant Director for Creative Materials: Joe Kaplan
Musical Director:  Lynn Kaplan
Co-Musical Director/Conductor: Joe Sipzner
Vocal Director: Deirdre Gyr Turshen
Master Pianist: Susan Mason Mcelroy
Stage Manager: Michal Kaufer
Co-Stage Manager: Jennifer Sokol
Assistant Stage Managers: David Stahl and Joe Durso
Choreographers: Claudia Halasz and Abigail Kruger
Kick Choreographer: Lisa Irvine
Dance Captain: Rachel Waldstein
Lighting Designer: Jef Smith
Lighting Crew Chief: Mike Resser
Master Carpenter, Set Assembly Crew Chief, Stage Crew Chief/ Scenic Painting Crew Chief, and Transportation Coordinator: Bill Rippey Master Scenic Artist and Scenic Designer: David Means
Sound Designer and Crew Chief: Matthew Datcher
Hair and Makeup Designer and Crew Chief: Cathy Dunn
Properties Co-Designer and Crew Chief: Robin Gold
Properties Co-Designer: Dottie Holmgren
Costume Designers: Jamie Breckenridge, Eleanor Dicks, and Linda Wilson Microphone Crew Chief: Ann H. Lung
Media Relations: Gene Tighe III

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.